The final campaign spending reports from Hoboken’s 4th Ward Election on Nov. 2 have been filed with the state, and the results show that newly-elected Councilman Tim Occhipinti outspent incumbent Michael Lenz by a nearly 2:1 ratio.
The reports also show a large number of Occhipinti workers paid on Election Day, leading Lenz’s supporters to level accusations at their opponents.
According to reports filed with the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) in Trenton in late November, the Occhipinti campaign paid approximately 575 campaign workers for an election in which only 2,076 voters cast ballots. On Nov. 2, Lenz’s team paid only 17 Election Day workers.
A “Friends of Beth Mason for City Council” organization donated $8,200 on Oct. 30.
Even though Lenz was backed by the mayor, he lost to a relatively new candidate backed by various strong forces opposing Zimmer.
399 of the by-mail ballots were for Occhipinti.
It has been traditional in Hoboken’s heated elections, particularly in parts of Hoboken’s 4th Ward – which contains much low-income housing – for dozens of workers to be paid to get out of the vote on Election Day. It is also traditional for campaign teams to try to secure absentee or vote-by-mail ballots ahead of time.
But just because the practice is typical of elections in that part of the city, doesn’t mean people are content with it. The county prosecutor’s office recently referred 190 vote-by-mail ballots to the state Attorney General’s office. They have not elaborated on the nature of the probe or whether it’s in line with Lenz’s concerns.
The ELEC reports show that Lenz’s campaign contributions totaled $41,495, of which $40,717 was spent. Occhipinti received $78,353 worth of donations, and spent $75,202.
The reports show that approximately $22,000 of Occhipinti’s campaign expenses were distributed to campaign workers, who were usually paid $40.
“I’m very appreciative of all the workers and the support I received,” Occhipinti said Thursday.
The Occhipinti campaign distributed $40 checks to approximately 560 workers, and some additional workers were paid $100.
“Campaign workers did everything from wearing t-shirts to making calls to prospective voters, canvassing, walking with Tim, and distributing signs,” said an Occhipinti spokesperson.
The workers paid $100 had other duties, according to an Occhipinti spokesperson, such as staffing the campaign office on weeknights.
Checks were distributed to approximately 335 people on Election Day.
All campaign staff members were required to sign a contract that outlines the duties of a worker, according to Occhipinti. The form states that the worker will “lawfully promote and encourage the participation of voters,” and among other things, will “engage in only lawful conduct.”
Lenz, who lost the election by a 1,240 to 834 margin, thinks something other than just “working” was going on during the heated election season.
“I’ve lived in the 4th Ward for a long time,” Lenz said. “I’ve seen days with 500 workers on the street. [Nov. 2] wasn’t one of them. [Occhipinti] wasn’t paying people to work on Election Day. I don’t actually know what they did for their money. They didn’t distribute flyers, and they didn’t work on Election Day. It very much looks like they were paid for something other than working.”
Occhipinti said a challenger has an obligation to raise more money.
“You have to get your name out there,” Occhipinti said. “You don’t have a voting record to stand on. You have to put out your message.”
Even though Occhipinti was not backed by the mayor, he had the support of various other strong political forces in town, including Councilwoman Beth Mason and Councilman Michael Russo, both frequent critics of Zimmer and Lenz.
Occhipinti has said repeatedly that his workers completed their tasks in a legal manner. “Our campaign workers did a phenomenal job getting out my name with signage, t-shirts, and we put people to work. I’m proud of the job they did, and we won the day.”
Voting by mail
The Hoboken election had a large number of vote-by-mail ballots compared to elections in other towns the same day. The total vote-by-mail ballots tally for that single ward election was 444, when all of Hudson County had 3,687 mail-in ballots. The countywide percentage of people who voted by mail was 4 percent. The Hoboken 4th Ward election had approximately 20 percent of voters vote by mail.
Vote by mail is a system that people can use in order to avoid voting at the polls on Election Day. In the past, they needed to give a reason to do so, but that is no longer the case.
Of the 444 mail ballots for Hoboken, two residents voted for a write-in candidate, 43 voted for Lenz, and 399 voted by mail for Occhipinti.
Earlier in the election season, following the release of the 11-day pre-election reports, a local blog and then a statewide news website reported that 79 of 80 campaign workers for Occhipinti had voted by mail.
An Occhipinti campaign spokesperson has previously said that the campaign pushed for workers to vote by mail so the workers would be readily available to work on Election Day, rather than spend time at the polls.
A majority of Lenz’s campaign workers were paid $50 to $75, with all 17 of the Election Day workers being paid on Nov. 2, Election Day. Occhipinti’s campaign workers were paid between Oct. 15 and Nov. 9.
From Oct. 22 to Election Day, Occhipinti saw his contributions more than double, from $37,379 on Oct. 22 to $78,353 in the final days leading up to the election. Lenz’s contributions jumped from $30,521 to $41,495 in the final 11 days.
A big election for the politicos
According to the ELEC filings, a large amount of money came to the candidates by way of current council members.
Councilman Michael Russo contributed $500 on Oct. 18 to the Occhipinti campaign. Councilwoman Beth Mason and her husband each made the maximum $2,600 in-kind donation, while a “Friends of Beth Mason for City Council” organization donated $8,200 on Oct. 30 as Election Day approached.
Assemblyman Ruben J. Ramos’s organization, “Ramos for Assembly,” contributed $1,000 dollars to Occhipinti on Oct. 29.
The “Friends of Dawn Zimmer Hoboken Mayor” organization made in-kind contributions of $3,002 to Lenz. Zimmer and her husband each also provided Lenz with $1,500 in loans.
The “Friends of Bhalla for Council,” the organization of Councilman Ravinder Bhalla, donated $1,250 to the Lenz campaign.
Councilman Peter Cunningham made a $500 contribution to Lenz on June 24. Future candidate for the 2nd Ward May 2011 election Thomas Greaney donated $1,750 to Lenz, as well as a $400 in-kind contribution on June 24. Councilwoman Carol Marsh donated $500 to Lenz.
Questions from Election Day
The Hudson County Board of Elections sent approximately 190 ballots that were questioned by the Lenz campaign to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office for review in mid-November.
On Nov. 19, Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio said the matter would be referred to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Lenz believes that if the allegations made are proved to be true, “the workers are not the villains; they’re the victims.”
Lenz said he would put the blame on “the people who made the payments, the people who financed the payments, and the officials who have let it go on for too long.”
Occhipinti has said he has “every confidence in the process” and he is concentrating on “what [he] was elected to do, serve the people of the 4th Ward.”
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com